Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In some places married couples are sometimes invited to renew their wedding vows during Mass. Has the Church given norms on how this should be done? When is it appropriate and what format should it take? — J.D., Leeton, Australia
A: The universal Church has not proposed any ritual for the renewal of marriage vows either within or outside of Mass.
At the same time, the Church offers great leeway for national bishops’ conferences to prepare their own Rites of Marriage and submit them for approval by the Holy See.
Through this process several countries, especially in North and South America, have included in the Ritual for Marriage a rite for the renewal of vows, especially on the 25th and 50th anniversaries.
These rites make a slight but significant distinction between the original vows and the renewal of the ongoing marriage commitment. In the United States the formula of vows is slightly different from the original formula, in order to reflect a spiritual renewal. In Canada, on the other hand, it is the priest’s introduction that explains the meaning and reasons for the renewal of the original formula. There are also different moments for the renewal. In some countries the renewal on jubilee anniversaries is done after the homily; in others it follows the Prayer after Communion.
The reason for these slight but significant changes is because in an essential way there is no such thing as the “renewal of the marriage vows.” The exchange of vows is seen as the sacramental form and is thus essentially unique for the same couple. Through their consent the spouses mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable and perpetual covenant in order to establish marriage (see Canon 1057.2 of the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism, No. 1638).
It is true that Catholics annually renew their baptismal promises, priests their ordination commitments and many religious their vows. But these promises are complementary to the sacrament and do not constitute the sacramental form itself. Nobody is ever baptized or ordained anew for devotional purposes.
This is why it is important that such renewal formulas be carefully framed and should avoid any expression that might hint at actually renewing the original sacramental bond. A fairly good example can be taken from an English-language ritual used in the 1960s:
“Renewal of the Marriage Vows
“The jubilarians join their right hands and repeat after the priest, the man first:
“I, N.N., reaffirm my marriage vow of twenty-five (fifty) years ago, and rededicate myself in the same spirit that I once took you, N.N., for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.
“The woman next repeats the same formula; after which the priest says ….”
Besides the renewal of the vows the Church has several other ways of honoring perseverance in married life.
The Roman Missal has three special Masses for anniversaries, especially for jubilees. The Book of Blessings contains several beautiful prayers and blessings for married couples both within and outside of Mass.
These latter texts may be used anywhere in the world, whereas the renewal of vows within Mass may be used only where it is officially incorporated within the ritual books or has been specifically approved.
From what I have been able to gauge from simple anecdotal observation, the practice of renewal of marriage vows seems prevalent above all in the Americas. It appears to be less common in Europe.
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Follow-up: Singing the Alleluia at the Ambo
Pursuant to our Jan. 8 comments on the Alleluia, a reader from Down Under asked the following regarding the responsorial psalm:
“A situation that I know of sometimes arises where the reader will invite the congregation to pick up the Mass sheet, and read the entire psalm through together, beginning and ending with the antiphon. Inadvertently the celebrant (unless knowing the verses by heart) is left out of reciting anything — unless having the text at hand. I checked the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which mentions that, where the psalm cannot be sung, ‘it should be recited in a way that is particularly suited to fostering meditation on the word of God’ (GIRM, No. 61). Given this direction, would the aforementioned method of recitation be allowable, since, after all, it is called ‘The Responsorial Psalm’?”
This theme is dealt with more fully in the Introduction to the Lectionary, to wit:
“THE RESPONSORIAL PSALM
“19. The responsorial psalm, also called the gradual, has great liturgical and pastoral significance because it is an ‘integral part of the liturgy of the word.’  Accordingly, the faithful must be continually instructed on the way to perceive the word of God speaking in the psalms and to turn these psalms into the prayer of the Church. This, of course, ‘will be achieved more readily if a deeper understanding of the psalms, according to the meaning with which they are sung in the sacred Liturgy, is more diligently promoted among the clergy and communicated to all the faithful by means of appropriate catechesis.’
“Brief remarks about the choice of the psalm and response as well as their correspondence to the readings may be helpful.
“20. As a rule the responsorial psalm should be sung. There are two established ways of singing the psalm after the first reading: responsorially and directly. In responsorial singing, which, as far as possible, is to be given preference, the psalmist, or cantor of the psalm, sings the psalm verse and the whole congregation joins in by singing the response. In direct singing of the psalm there is no intervening response by the community; either the psalmist, or cantor of the psalm, sings the psalm alone as the community listens or else all sing it together.
“21. The singing of the psalm, or even of the response alone, is a great help toward understanding and meditating on the psalm’s spiritual meaning.
“To foster the congregation’s singing, every means available in each individual culture is to be employed. In particular, use is to be made of all the relevant options provided in the Order of Readings for Mass regarding responses corresponding to the different liturgical seasons.
“22. When not sung, the psalm after the reading is to be recited in a manner conducive to meditation on the word of God.
“The responsorial psalm is sung or recited by the psalmist or cantor at the ambo.”
As can be seen above in No. 20, the possibility of a non-responsorial proclamation of the psalm is tied to its being sung.
If not sung, then a meditative recitation is required (No 22 and GIRM, No. 61). I think that meditative listening does not combine well with a common recitation of the whole psalm.
For this reason, while not specifically forbidden, this practice does not correspond to the Church’s desire as to how the responsorial psalm should be proclaimed in the liturgy.
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.